In Conversation With Shaina McCoy | Episode 25

June 17, 2023
© Shaina McCoy's studio. Image: Courtesy of the artist.
© Shaina McCoy's studio. Image: Courtesy of the artist.
You work with your own personal archives which include images and family portraits from the 1980s and 90s. Could you please tell us, how did this passion for family history arise? When and how did you start collecting these photos?


My passion for my familial history began in High School. I always had this great love and interest in my family lineage. We are a super blended bunch. A special school project came about that moved me to start digging up old photos from my mom’s archive. I attended the Perpich Center for Arts Education from 2010-2012. We studied everything from drawing, painting, sculpture, 3D design, jewelry making, and printmaking. I chose to focus on painting. A guest studio arts teacher, Megan Rye, visited our class, and gave us an extensive project of 30 paintings. We had to complete 10 paintings at the size of 5”x 7” (editor's note: 12.5 x 17.5 cm) each week. She asked us to choose our subject matter for the next three weeks. My first subject option was not going to work out, so I had to pivot. I do not recall the moment in which I started diving in family photos, but I knew they were abundant. I gathered them from my mom’s house and brought them in for my school project. My grandfather is the family photographer; for many generations, he had been documenting everyday moments of all of us. He was fascinated with life, and had a deep love for us all which turned into my same love and passion.


Your works have been inspired by 20th-century modernist painters, in particular Mary Cassatt and Egon Schiele. Do you remember your first personal encounter with their art? When and how did it happen?

I came in contact with those two artists in 2011. We had a summer self-portrait project to complete by the time we returned as seniors. I thought to myself that everyone has a favorite artist that they admire, right? I had no one. I knew that I loved looking at art and doing it, but no one stuck out to me. I began my google search for anything and anyone that made me feel something. Egon Schiele was the first artist that drew me in. His portraiture was intense and powerful. I was inspired and moved to create my first painted self-portrait after his style of art. Within our curriculum, we studied art history. It was also in my senior year that Mary Cassatt was introduced to me. Our Art History professor Craig Farmer made the material digestible. A lot of things stuck with me simply because of his teaching style. He had a collection of art slides that he pushed through weekly. The Mother and Child sitters in Mary Cassatt’s work resonated with me. It was reminiscent of many mothers in my family. I loved the tenderness of these isolated moments.


The first thing that strikes attention is that the figures you depict don’t have faces. I have read that when you first tried painting faces you were not satisfied with the result. Now faceless figures turned into your unique style. Are you thinking about trying to experiment with faces again in the future?

I have lightly experimented with faces within my work in 2022. I don’t want it to be the focus, though. I have done contour drawings with facial features to loosen up on my hand. Sometimes painting can be too tight and controlled. I use drawing as a refresher or what I’d like to call a “smoke break”. Another moment of attempt was in the painting Three Brothers of my great grandpa Ba and his brother Noni. They are standing in the living room, one arm wrapped around each other’s sides. Off to the left of the painting, there is a small framed photo of their other brother Willington who passed away at 18. I thought painting his face would make the viewer question “why?”. I wanted him to be just as present in this moment as the two standing for the photo. If the face was left out, the view may just gaze at it, and think nothing further. Painting faces just hasn’t been my thing, and the lack of features leaves room for the audience to be curious. The paintings act as mirrors, half-written scripts, and places to play.


 © Shaina McCoy (left) at "So Close Yet So Far", BODE, Berlin, 2023. Image: Dominique Suberville


Do you identify yourself with the protagonists of your works? Are there any self-portraits among them?

I identify with almost every single one of them. There are rare moments that I paint someone that I do not know personally. I feel strongly about painting people that I have met. There are about 13 self-portraits out there in the world. All of them you can identify by the lace material under the oil painting. While studying other artists and their self-portraiture, a question that always comes to mind is “how do I want to be remembered?” Amongst all the Black folks I have painted, you can easily spot which one is me. This is only one tangible way people can remember me by. Outside of the art, I want to be remembered by our shared human experience.


Some of the topics you deal with are, e.g. violence or the resilience of Black families. What further topics do you investigate in your art practice?

Other topics and conversations I have explored within the work are isolated moments of babies holding babies, Black fathers embracing their little ones, mundane moments of Black folks just being, mother and child, mature friendships, self-portraiture, regal poses, school photos, studio shots, and most recently, the gaze.


In one of your latest works “Tayana & Shay Shay” that will be presented at the group show in Berlin, you have depicted a plaid floor and the entire composition is marked by a strong geometry. Is it going to be a new direction of your art or rather a single experiment?

The tile in the painting of Tyana & Shay Shay is the first of many more to come. Slowly, but surely, I like to introduce new elements. I always ask myself, “how can I successfully depict this pattern, texture, or feeling?” I always try to execute the best way I know how to within my own language of painting. Trying new things is scary, but if it looks good and is up to my standard/satisfaction, I will continue exploring a specific pattern, or way of doing something. The tile shifts the perspective and places the viewer in the shoes of the camera person making the viewer engage with the sitters in an entirely different way. I love playing with perspective. A lot of my paintings are with one color in the background that include little, but impactful details adding to the story of the sitters. I want to spark dialogue, connectivity, emotional reaction, recollection of memory, maybe even a sound or smell.


© Shaina McCoy, Tayana & Shay Shay, 2023, Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 61 cm. Image: Dominique Suberville
Your work has been exhibited internationally – in America, Europe, Asia. Do you feel the difference in the reception of your art, e.g. in Portugal or Belgium and in the USA, or Hong Kong?

The work has thankfully been well-received all around. There are nuanced moments where it has been surprisingly received in a completely different way than I anticipated. For the Busan Art Fair, 2022, I painted my close friend Sahkeena’s family. There were two paintings. One with her and her mama, and the other with her mama and brother as babies. Her mom was born in Busan, and later adopted at six months. Most folks know me to paint my family only, so this was a surprise. This one felt just right. Sahkeena described it as returning her mama back to her homeland. Her mom even wrote a letter to her birth mother to be shown alongside the paintings in hopes that someone would recognize this story and help by bringing the mother and child back together. For some viewers, sadness consumed them. Since I am only the messenger in their story, I did not feel sadness while painting them. I felt hope and warmth. This was noticeably one of the first moments I have had that the viewers left feeling the opposite of what I had felt when they were in my studio.

What else inspires you, except for art? What are your main inspiration sources?

My main sources of inspiration are my family, music, and curiosity. I want to stay a student for life, and to never feel that I know everything.


You are based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Could you describe the local creative scene a little bit? Have you ever considered moving to a city with a bigger art scene?

The Minneapolis creative scene feels like it is getting a new breath. I feel that for some time we were and are still grieving George Flloyd, Jamar Clark, Daunte Wright, and Philando Castile and many more. There is an ecosystem here that I feel is so small. Once the heart or spirit of it is disrupted, everything in that ecosystem takes time to return to its “normal” state. As a creative community, we will never be the same. I feel that we are now arriving in a space where we feel comfortable enough to create, to say something outside of our trauma, and to share space again. We have very few galleries, and three major art museums. I’d like to say there is something in the water here in Minneapolis. We are home to so many phenomenal creative spirits. I have a lot of pride in that. I feel like we are a city of hidden gems. The harsh winters make us locked into whatever passions we have. Come Spring and Summer, we burst with energy. It really is a special place. I haven’t thought about moving until people started questioning it so much. It started to feel like damn, does Minnesota not fit me anymore? More recently in the last two years, it has been on my mind. I have finally decided to make that happen. I am in the middle of moving to Los Angeles! I am over the moon about my new start. Of course, my heart breaks to leave my family and friends, but I know Minnesota will always be home no matter what.


© Shaina McCoy, Baba, 2022, Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 61 cm. Image: Dominique Suberville
Could you please tell us what you are currently working on and give a quick glance into the future? Perhaps you have any extraordinary idea, not necessarily related to art, that you would like to bring into life one day?
Currently, I am working on my first solo exhibition in Seoul with Duarte Sequeira Gallery. Playfulness is at the forefront of these paintings - no matter the age. There will be more pops of color. The show opens July 13th! After that, you can expect my second solo exhibition in Brussels with the Stems Gallery in September. Honestly, it is hard to think of creation beyond art. Almost every corner of my life involves art. All I know is that I wanna buy back my great grandpa's house on the Southside of Minneapolis.
Interview conducted by Valentina Plotnikova